Smile Politely

Ray Wylie Hubbard makes a rare Central Illinois visit

It used to be that Ray Wylie Hubbard was best known for penning the classic song “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” Now he’s going to be playing at the ageless country dive the Rose Bowl in Urbana (and we say ‘dive’ with all respect and love). Ok, add those things up and you may be thinking you’re going to hear one thing, but we’re pretty sure you’re going to experience something entirely different if you make it out to said Rose Bowl on Monday, May 10 for the WWHP sponsored early show — and we HIGHLY recommend that you do.

Ray Wylie Hubbard was one of the self-styled ‘cosmic cowboys’ in the Texas of the early 70s and yes, you should listen to the hysterical clip of him on YouTube explaining to Jerry Jeff Walker how he came up with that song. But honestly? That was then and this is now and the NOW of Ray Wylie Hubbard is a whole ‘nother thing and we gotta tell you…’s really smart and scary, really muddy, really full of raspy blues and a dash of gospel — and the whole thing is just damned good.

Although his first success was in the ’70s, after years of playing the honky-tonk circuit Hubbard cleaned up, learned to fingerpick and dove deeper into songwriting at the age of 41. He’s had an impressive stretch of strong albums since then with 2006’s Snake Farm garnering a good bit of airplay and attention. This new album, A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is No C) just ups the ante however. He may be an iconic songwriter known as the Wylie Llama, but there is no resting on the proverbial laurels here. And besides, anybody who growls “I think Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake” just makes us pretty darn happy. Hubbard was gracious enough to chat with us on the phone the other morning. When asked about the new album:

The first song I had for this album was “Drunken Poet’s Dream” which I wrote with Hayes (Carll) oh three or four years ago. So I had that one and these other songs that came together — all these different types of songs. I just got into one of those things where the inspiration was completely like ping-pong, or like a pinball machine…. I saw this wasps’ nest on my back porch and I was reading the Chet Baker story and wrote a song about opium. So I started reading Revelations again and wrote “Four Horsemen” and then I had an old girl I knew in Dallas, who was a call girl, die and so I wrote “Loose.” They just all kind of were very scattered….(this) wasn’t like a concept album or anything but they all seemed to fit…. I’m really happy with it. It’s dark and weird. The whole deal about the album is enlightenment and endarkenment….it’s just having a foot in both worlds.

We asked him how his songwriting has changed — much of his new music seems literary in inspiration. How does that compare to old songs like “Up Against the Wall”? He chuckled and said,

Back in those days I was probably too drunk to read. As an older guy kinda doing all this stuff, these young songwriters will come up and ask me for advice or input or something and I always tell them just read, read the Grapes of Wrath — just don’t listen to Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”! Go back and read. I’m constantly reading everything from Greek mythology to science fiction to anything — I just find myself reading and that seems to trigger some creative spark to write — to put it into song, trigger that inspiration.

I wish we could write every word he said but we’d be overlong for this spot. Suffice to say he was not only kind, but thought provoking. He reminded us of the simple power of great songs combined with great performance. He told us the magic of the Cosmic Cowboy/Outlaw scene was that it had been all about the song and the music. And he talked about constantly trying learn new things, “I picked up a bottleneck slide and that just opened door after door after door as far as the music there….it’s really important that I keep trying to get better.” It made us more sure than ever that we will be plunked — hopefully in a couple of our favorite seats — at the Rose Bowl come Monday. And if you go? He promised he’d tell us his story of being on The Dating Game. Life really IS good.

Ray Wylie Hubbard performs with percussionist Rick Richards at the Rose Bowl Tavern in downtown Urbana. (7:30 p.m. advance tickets $15, $18 at the door)

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